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A Haunted Heart

A haunted heart


Estimated reading time — 24 minutes

Hell is real.

The only people who’ll try to convince you of this are street preachers and Jehovah’s Witnesses. And I get that, I really do. Their belief in themselves and their cause is almost admirable. Almost. The bigotry and fundamentalism kind of turns me off the idea. Plus, you know, the fact that they’re a cult is by no means a positive. It doesn’t exactly help their case.

I have a sign outside my house that discourages their visits. It doesn’t always work, but it gets the point across fairly well. Polite but firm, and the vast majority of door-to-doors will pass me by as soon as they read it. Some are too persistent, however. Those I just tell that I’m not interested, and never will be, and that they’re better off not wasting their time on me. I’m just as stubborn. I’m not going to be swayed by faith in concepts that are, at their core, antiquated and malicious.

But I know that Hell is real.

I was raised in a conservative Christian household in the Southern states of America. It wasn’t the stereotypical redneck cesspit you might have expected, but I definitely wasn’t what you might call… free. Church on Sunday, no drinking, smoking, drugs, parties and especially no sex. Puritan as you could imagine.

God had a place in my life, though. I didn’t resent Him. I read His books, idolised His son, prayed to Him when I was down or worried, and I felt a great allure to the idea of Him. I never wanted to burn anybody at the stake for being different, and I never wanted to cast out those who were seen as unnatural. According to my community, I’d be unnatural too. I never told them, and they never asked. It was safer that way.

When I was eighteen, I moved up to New Hampshire. Don’t ask me why I chose that state exactly, it was mainly just a random spot I pointed to on the map. It seemed like the right pick at the time. Maybe it was the idea of all those trees, the wide and open fields and the forests… God, all those forests. It looked like Heaven to me.

You might be wondering how my faith diminished. The truth is, it didn’t. Not in the traditional sense. God still played a part in my life; I still prayed, still read the Bible on occasion, and my artwork always had subtle nods and homages to His works. I had been so excited to lead a life of my own, one dictated by me and not my family, one where I could explore myself, the world and anything I damn well wanted to. It was surreal. I was finally free.

And then I had to go and fall in love with a monster.

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I was so perfectly fine with my life when it happened. I had a well-paying job at a local restaurant – I was always good at being a waitress – and I had no desire to move my existence beyond the quiet serenity I had enjoyed for the past four years. God was still in my heart, but He’d somewhat faded into the stars as I focused more on my work, my friends and my art. I had taken up photography and was scoping out new locations, and I had adopted a beautiful dog named Scotty. She was a welcome companion, and everything in my life was just right.

My friends all liked to party. I didn’t much like the bigger and more intense ones. I had learned quickly that while I like to let my hair down every so often, I’m not completely wild. That kind of stuff makes me nervous, and the loss of control over my body and my mental state, even for only a few hours, unsettles me. But it was my best friend’s birthday and I had agreed to go out with her because I cared about her. I still do.

Truthfully I tell you, I tried my very best that night. There was nothing and nobody that could destroy my ironclad will, not a single stranger or acquaintance who could’ve torn down my walls and turned me into something I wasn’t. I was so close to perfection.

When he saw me, I could immediately tell he was interested. His eyes moved from his circle of friends, arguing about some inane sports event or the latest viral video, and fixed squarely on me. I was uncomfortable, standing alone against a wall with my phone in my hand, trying to avoid his gaze. It was no use, though. He was there, and so was I, and I guess God willed us together.

He approached me and asked why I was alone. I told him I didn’t like parties, and introduced myself in the hopes he’d find me too boring and leave me alone. He didn’t leave. My openness caused the opposite effect on him; instead of turning him off from me, he became interested in hearing about my life. He hadn’t told me a single thing about himself, which was odd. Most guys I had met were so obsessed with proving themselves, but him… he didn’t seem to care about proving anything.

As I told him about my interests, my past, my current situation, I became more and more at ease with him. He seemed genuinely interested in me, in who I was, and that was refreshing. I eventually asked him who he was, and his response was… weird.

“Nobody important. Not yet, anyway.”

By the end of the night, it was me who asked for his number. He was surprised, but graciously gave it to me and asked if perhaps we could see each other again. I agreed. I wanted to pick him apart. That night, I went to bed thinking about him. He was handsome, attentive, charming and pleasant, and I felt a great deal of mystery surrounding him. I felt safe in that mystery. Comforted by the idea of him.

We met up several times after and soon developed a romance. It happened faster than I expected, but I was in love. He was so quiet, like me, but he had such interesting ideas, such a way with words. He let me take the lead in everything, let me be the one to make decisions, allowed me to take control of the relationship. It was such an unfamiliar power dynamic, and I wondered at one point if he was a submissive – the literal kind, into BDSM or something.

But it was something else. He was like some kind of otherworldly being – thoughts of him being a forest spirit also entered my mind – and I had no idea how entranced I actually was by him. After only six months, we were already moving in together. I gave up my cottage by the lake for a suburban neighbourhood next to a massive forest. A further six months later and I had a ring on my finger.

He and I seemed to be the perfect husband and wife. We went on outings across the country, visited famous landmarks, crossed the sea to other continents and got pretty popular on Instagram with my photography account. We adopted a cat named Marla and soon were a pretty little four.

I loved him. He fit so well into my plans, like the last missing jigsaw piece I never knew I had. I had convinced myself I was happy; it didn’t exactly take much at first. I was really, truly happy, and nothing could ruin it, nothing at all.

It can be easy to look back at things with hindsight and see exactly when they started to change. My marriage, I had been made to believe, was literally perfect. I didn’t have any cause to believe otherwise, and of course I should’ve seen it coming, but most people don’t. If we did, we wouldn’t be called ‘abuse survivors’, would we? We’d have run as soon as we knew what we were being led into. But I didn’t run, because I had no reason to. Why run from a monster that doesn’t exist?

It started out small, like it does for almost everybody. He’d keep asking me where I was going, keep questioning my motive for everything. At first I just told him, and he’d always back off. It was never anything to concern me. Whenever I spoke to a male friend, he’d become extremely worried and ask to see what I was saying. I told him it was a private conversation, and he’d get upset. He never moved to hit me, but his voice would change, and he’d be betrayed and sad and I’d feel horrible.

So I stopped texting those male friends. He meant more to me than they did.

The other stuff was small too. He’d insist on me not reading certain books, and told me I should focus on the stuff that was more ‘palatable’. He told me he was uncomfortable with my faith, that I should just give it up and focus on being normal. I wasn’t sure what exactly he meant by that, but I relented. God was never more important than myself and my loved ones. It wasn’t worth ruining my marriage for Him.

And then… things started getting worse. If we were in an argument and I didn’t want to just let him win, he’d push me. After the pushing came slapping. After the slapping came threats. He told me I’d be hurting myself more than him by defying him. He told me my friends didn’t care about me for who I truly was, they just wanted me around because I was smart. He never called me stupid, but it’s not like he was complimenting me. To him, my intelligence was something to be grateful for, something given to me by others. Not something I had worked for, or was simply born with. He held it hostage behind a wall of guilt.

I bit my tongue and I let it happen. I wanted to stay, because when he was good, and kind, and loving, I felt completely whole. I couldn’t see how unsafe he was making me but I didn’t want to, I wanted him to just be my protector and my friend. And he was, I suppose, but what I didn’t understand was the difference between a protector and a jailer. He was the latter. As far as he was concerned, I belonged to him – property of a great and important man. “Nobody special” was a lie. He thought the world of himself.

When my friends inevitably showed concern, I told them I was not only safe, but happy. I told them it would be best for them if they never spoke to me again, in case they screwed up my perfect life. I called them horrible names, insisted I was better off without them, and I cut all the ties I could think of. And I did it because he was watching. I knew what he’d do if I disobeyed him.

He controlled my finances after that. I made no purchase without his approval, spent no money without his permission, and barely even left the house. He did all the hard work. He was the one with the well-paying job at the bank, and he was the one who made a living for us.

After he took control of my savings, he took control of my body. No matter how in the mood or not in the mood I was for him, I was his to use. It wasn’t up to me. I didn’t have a say in the matter. When I lay there, staring at the ceiling, trying desperately not to look at his face, I would tell myself to shut up and take it. I am a strong person, I would say, someone who has escaped and lived through far, far worse, and I can be what my husband needs. I’m strong, goddamn it! But it didn’t matter how strong I was.

Because he was stronger.

I tried to find comfort in Scotty and Marla, but of course he despised them too. When he saw how much they meant to me, he told me to get rid of them. I refused, standing up for myself for once in my life, against him. He was taken aback by my outburst, and he backed off. I thought that was the end of it, thought that it was over, and that I’d shown him I was still the one in control. I thought maybe he was beginning to change.

I came home from work to find him running Scotty and Marla over in my car.

I couldn’t even mourn them. He beat me so viciously that night that my ribs broke and I threw up blood for an hour. The next day, he reported the animals accidentally killed… by me, of course. His charm and charisma made for effective crocodile tears. Everyone believed him. Such a tragedy, it was. Such a tragedy. And the poor wife; she really is losing it.

I knew I couldn’t leave. It wasn’t possible. Even if I tried, he’d find me, and do things to me that would make everything he’d already done seem like good deeds. Besides…

…he’d sealed my fate when he put a baby in me.

I did everything I could to hold in my tears when I took the test. He’d hurt me if I cried. I learned soon after that I’d be having twins, and they’d arrive on or around Christmas Day. How festive. My body was filled with something I didn’t want, an anchor to my abuser, a reminder of all the horrific things he’d done to me. Even if I did want kids, what kind of mother would I be to raise them in a house with a man like him?

I tried taking an overdose one night. All that did was put me in the hospital for a few days, and as close as he insisted on being to me during that time, I felt safer in a place he couldn’t control. When I came home, he didn’t touch me, but there was a venomous air between us. It wasn’t as if he suddenly respected me, he just knew he couldn’t damage the fragile cargo. And that’s really all I was to him during those days: a walking incubator for his lineage.

And then, just two weeks before my children were due, something extraordinary happened.

Fairytale endings are hard to come by, especially the ones where the ‘bad guy’ gets their comeuppance and everybody lives happily ever after. I was fortunate that, once in a blue moon, there comes a great divine justice.

One night, my husband had been out late. I could always smell the booze on him, and occasionally I caught a glimpse of the white powder under his nose. He didn’t even sleep in the same bed as me, so I didn’t have to look at his face. The late nights became more frequent the further along in my pregnancy I got. I guess he was getting more and more antsy. More tired of waiting for me to be his plaything again.

His carelessness was what got the best of him. Nobody warned him not to drive home in a state of complete intoxication, and his arrogance afforded him a haughty sense of confidence. He knew he could do it, and he didn’t need anybody to tell him otherwise. So he drove, of course, and he drove without a care in the world. And while he was driving, he decided to light up a cigarette. Luckily for me, it just so happened that his car battery was leaking the hydrogen it produced when it was charged. That’s how those car accidents happen, nothing fancy like in the movies.

As soon as his lighter sparked up, it ignited the pervading hydrogen gas and caused the battery to explode. He was on a quiet stretch of road in the open fields, so fortunately there was nobody else around. I was told that when paramedics arrived, after a passing car spotted the accident, my husband was still alive. He didn’t die for almost six hours, his skin melting and sloughing off his bones as every part of his body was seared and scorched. They said his screams were nightmarish. After the most agonising and relentless pain of his life, my husband died, slowly and horribly.

And what did I do, upon hearing this news? I yelled in delight and sobbed with joy for the rest of the night.

In the coming weeks, I arranged and organised everything. He had no will and no living family members, so all his assets were left to me. The life insurance coverage was huge, and with it I hired the best lawyer in the county to represent me when I reported my husband for the abuse I had suffered. It didn’t matter in the traditional sense, since he was dead, but I refused to allow his legacy to be of a good man. There was ample evidence for my case, including hidden security footage of him killing Marla and Scotty. To my overwhelming relief, they accepted almost everything I had to offer, and everybody in the town came to know what kind of monster my husband was.

But the best was still yet to come.

My two beautiful sons were born a few days before Christmas. My husband had made me burn every bridge I had, and so the only people to comfort me at the hospital while I screamed in pain were the midwives. They were lovely, though, and after so much pain and fear, I held two wailing babies in my arms. They were both perfectly healthy, both gasping around the new air in their lungs and looking up at me with curious, worried eyes. I was overjoyed. They were safe, and now, so was I.

I couldn’t stay in that house anymore, so I moved back to my old cottage by the lake. To my utter relief, nobody had bought it since I left, so I snapped it up almost instantly. The moving process took time, especially on my own, but eventually I was settled with my sons.

And then one day, there was a knock at the door. It was one of my old friends, a sombre expression on her face. She told me how sorry she was for what my husband did to me, how awful it must have been to go through his abuse. She told me that if there was anything I needed, I’d only have to ask. I accepted her help instantly and tearfully, overwhelmingly glad that she forgave me for pushing her away. In the weeks that followed, all my friends returned, each of them offering help and support and, most importantly, their friendship.

Being a single parent is hard. My sons are well-behaved, polite and absolute joys to be around, but no child is perfect, and I’m glad of that. Taking care of them and myself wasn’t impossible, but I learned that I’d have to get used to asking for help if I wanted to make ends meet. I worked double-shifts and sold some of my art online, not expecting much, but being pleasantly surprised that there was a market for my style, and people who loved what I produced. It felt surreal at times, and I admit, I was still riding that wave of happiness. I wasn’t sure what could happen next.

Survivors of abuse are often afflicted with PTSD. Sometimes it’s not enough to destabilise their life, and other times it’s debilitating. The nights since my husband’s death were restless, but I was kept from the horrors by something. My faith was returning, and I began to believe that God was being kind to me once again. I prayed to Him and asked if I would suffer, even after my time in Purgatory was over. It was inevitable, but that naïve, young part of me hoped I could be free forever.

Then it came. Loud noises that might have barely startled me years ago would cause me to scream and cry. I couldn’t watch horror movies, could barely sit through an argument on TV. It was maddening, how sudden the memories washed back, and I remembered the horrors I’d faced. The nightmares played on my fears and misery, locking me back in the places he’d kept me, forcing me to look at him, look at the things he did to me, and to my pets, and what he could’ve done to my sons.

The trauma started to chip away at my resolve. Raising my boys got harder, and working down to the bone had shifted from no trouble at all to almost impossible. I tried to hide how much it hurt at first, but my friends could see that I was suffering. I saw a psychiatrist and a therapist and a counsellor, and through their diagnoses and listening ears I came to terms with my PTSD. The medication I was prescribed by them started to numb the pain a little, and support groups mixed with help from my friends started to make things easier to handle.

The years went by and the memories of my abuse never disappeared. They only lessened, the nightmares growing fewer and farther between, the panic attacks plaguing me maybe a few times a year rather than several times a week. By the time my sons were starting elementary school, I was in a better place than I might’ve hoped for. I was doing well financially, my boys were happy, and my art had changed from neurotic and disturbing to calm, gentle and soothing.

One evening, while my sons were playing inside, I walked out onto the porch and sat down, watching the sunset. Its glow glistened off the water of the lake, casting long shadows across the forest around me. For the first time in years, I felt safe. I felt at home. This was where I belonged, where I wanted to be, where I needed to be. I had myself to thank for that, with maybe a small thanks to God for killing my husband.

Most paranormal horror movies are full of absolute shit. No matter how bold the ‘based on a true story’ subtitle is, every single big budget Hollywood production is fattened with jumpscares and stupid decisions. I had read about the Warrens and other people like them, and growing up in a conservative Christian household afforded me an understanding of the darkness of our world. If you had asked my father if he believed in ghosts, he’d scoff and tell you they weren’t real. A person is either alive or dead, and when they’re dead, there’s only three places they can go: Heaven, Purgatory or Hell.

But if you asked him if he believed in demons? He’d reply without a moment’s hesitation:

“I’ve seen at least five with my own eyes.”

Xander, one of my beautiful sons, was playing with one of his toys in the living room when it happened. I was sitting on the couch, reading a book, when suddenly his little noises stopped. I looked up from the pages to see him staring at the corner of the room, his gaze perplexed but curious. I followed it, and only found the coat-stand.

“What’s up, little guy?”

He looked back at me, his expression twisting from curiosity to confusion.

“You don’t see him?”

He asked that as if I was missing something obvious.

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“See who?”

I assumed he was talking about an imaginary friend.

“There’s a man standing right there.”

He pointed to the coat-stand. I couldn’t help but tense up slightly. I asked him what man he meant, and with that same expression of confusion, he replied,

“The flaky man. His skin is all flaky. And he’s really bright, too, like the sun.”

Kids have very overactive imaginations. I know I was a curious child, and I remember making up all kinds of little companions and animals during playtime. That’s normal. This wasn’t normal. I wasn’t sure how to react; how are you supposed to? I just told Xander to be careful about those sorts of imaginary friends and tried not to think about it.

That night, I was tucking my boys in when Ethan, my other son, started staring into the corner of the room, just like Xander had. I asked him if he had another imaginary friend, but he just smiled and shook his head.

“It’s just the flaky man.”

His response sent a cold shiver through my body. I sat down with them and asked them when they’d started seeing the flaky man. They couldn’t remember, but agreed that it had been about a week or so since he started showing up. I asked them to describe him to me in more detail. Xander went first.

“He’s super tall, and his whole body is black and red. His skin is all weird… like it keeps coming off… and he has really long fingers.”

“And his eyes are gone!”

Ethan chimed in. I asked him what he meant.

“Like, he has holes where his eyes are. But they’re not eyes.”

“He glows like the sun. It kinda looks like a candle… or the bonfires at the Fourth of July parties.”

Sleeping that night proved to be almost impossible. I tried not to picture the man my boys had described, and I began to ignore the early warning signs. It was a shared imaginary friend, one they had both seen. Worse than that, it sounded like something from a horror movie. I wanted to believe they had just been having odd dreams and were visualising them in their minds, but even that didn’t make sense. This thing didn’t sound like harmless make-believe. It sounded like something real.

Now, I want to make it clear that I’m not an idiot. I know that signs of schizophrenia can be traced back as early as infanthood, and my boys were both eight when they started mentioning the flaky man. I might have had them tested, but logic put a stop to that train of thought, especially when I reminded myself that schizophrenics don’t share hallucinations like a hive-mind. Either my boys were extremely ill or they could see something that wasn’t a delusion.

Later in the week, I contacted a respected demonologist and had him make a house call while my boys were at school. I know that the words ‘respected’ and ‘demonologist’ rarely share the same sentence, but I wanted to strike off the worst possible conclusion first. It’s hard to erase the old beliefs when they’re carved into you almost from birth. And, besides, what would you do?

The demonologist came by and did a sweep of the house. After almost two hours, he sat me down and asked me about my personal life. He inquired about my husband and I told him the story. He frowned in concern and gave his sympathy for my experiences, before asking if I had told my sons about their father. Never told them a thing, I replied, explaining that I had only informed them their father had died before they were born. This didn’t sit right with him. Not that part specifically, but the part about them never knowing of his fate.

It was then that I began to draw the obvious conclusions – flaky skin, missing eyes, glowing like fire. It sounded all too familiar.

The demonologist told me that, very occasionally, a dark spirit will take on the form of somebody a person fears or once knew, in order to torment them. He warned me to stay cautious of ‘the flaky man’, advised me to keep taking my medication, and left. I felt a great deal of dread in the house when he did, amplified by my solitude. I was alone. I was alone with the idea of my husband’s ghost.

Things started to go missing. At first it was minor things, like a paintbrush or a battery or my keys, and I would always find them eventually. I thought nothing of it, blaming either my own forgetfulness or just my boys having a little fun. Then things began to escalate. I would leave a painting out to dry, and there’d be a new addition to the canvas. It would be something small, like a tiny line or a circle or some other kind of shape. I knew I didn’t put it there, and I couldn’t blame everything on my sons, especially since they loved my art, and wouldn’t want to ruin it.

Sometimes, I’d put something down and walk away for a moment, only to see it halfway across the room when I returned to pick it up. It got worse when I would leave things behind locked doors and find them sitting on the chair opposite me.

One night, as I tried to sleep, I heard something fall from downstairs. I wearily trudged towards the sound and saw one of my vases had shattered on the kitchen floor. I sighed and went to clear up the mess, only to notice something shining inside the rubble. I crouched down and picked it up.

It was my wedding ring. The one I had buried in the forest eight years ago. The forest that was halfway across town.

It got too much to bear when Xander started getting night terrors. More often than not, I’d find him in the kitchen, in the dead of night, staring at the wall. When I called out to him, he wouldn’t turn around, just stand there and shiver. Sometimes he’d be talking. Sometimes he’d be crying. Every time he’d say the same thing.

“Please don’t… I don’t want to go with you… I’m scared of that place…”

One day, I asked Xander if he could still see the flaky man. He looked away and didn’t answer me. I asked a little more firmly, and he just told me he didn’t know what I was talking about. Ethan would talk to the flaky man, though, even when I was right there with him. He’d giggle and smirk and listen intently, and every so often I thought I could hear him whisper something under his breath. I didn’t like it. It made me feel like I couldn’t trust him; my own son.

That night, I decided to stay awake for as long as possible until I saw something happen. I drank plenty of coffee, kept my phone fully charged, and didn’t close my eyes for more than a second. Nothing happened for hours, and when it came to about three in the morning, I believed I might be safe for just one night. I got ready to go to bed when I felt something tug at my blanket. I looked up and saw Ethan rather than Xander, eyes closed, pyjama pants stained dark with urine. I called out to him and asked him if he was alright. His head began to tilt up, eyes still shut, and he muttered something.

“Why are you sleeping in mommy’s bed…?”

I begged the demonologist to make another house call, this time with my sons present. He was hesitant to involve them, but relented when I explained how bad things had gotten. Xander, usually such a polite and attentive boy, barely spoke a word to the man when he entered, and ignored his questions point blank. Ethan was worse, still talking to the damn flaky man, still laughing and smirking like nothing was wrong. He’s just a child, but… it made me angry.

Reluctantly, the demonologist agreed to stay the night in the guest room, upon my insistence. For some reason, I felt safer with him around. As I walked past his room before we all went to bed, I heard him uttering Psalm 23. His soft voice was calming, and I stayed to listen to the whole thing. As I lay in bed that night I prayed to God, prayed that whatever was haunting me, and my boys, and my life, would leave me by night’s end. I was so desperate, I would’ve done anything to get my freedom back.

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Everything was quiet until the early hours of the morning. I was awoken by something breathing against my skin. I’ve always been a light sleeper. I jolted awake and found nothing in my bed, not even a hint of a person. I clutched my chest and felt my beating heart, trying my best to calm myself. I was about to lay back down when I heard a faint mewling from across the room. I looked over the edge of the bed and almost screamed.

Marla was sat by the door. I knew it was her, instinctively I just knew, and it took all my strength to stop me from bursting into tears. She meowed again, and not a moment later, Scotty joined her, her tail wagging and tongue lolling from her mouth. My eyes filled with tears and I approached them slowly, overjoyed to see them again. As I came closer, they began trotting away into the darkness. I followed them all the way to the guest room, where they suddenly disappeared around a corner. I chased after them but they were gone.

And then I heard something from within the guest room. It sounded almost like… giggling. My confusion turned to anger, and I suspected Ethan was in there playing some weird game. I gently turned the knob and opened the door, expecting to give my son an earful for disturbing our lodger while he was sleeping.

There was something in the corner of the room. My eyes locked onto it instantly. It was a tall figure, its skin horribly charred and burned, patchy black flesh stained crimson with coagulated blood. Just like my boys had said, it had no eyes, just sockets crawling with maggots. It reached out its spindly fingers towards the demonologist’s forehead and traced down his nose to his mouth. I saw his rising and falling chest begin to slow in movement, and then the poor man suddenly choked in his sleep, writhing in unseen pain, and was still. The flaky man looked at me and his lips parted to reveal cracked teeth, from which poured a sea of insects.

I screamed, and he was gone in an instant.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I called the police. They found nothing in the house, not even a trace of the intruder. The demonologist was dead, and it looked like he’d simply suffered a heart attack. I knew the truth, though. I answered a few of the police’s questions, insisting that I had seen a man in my room, and it was possible he’d poisoned or strangled the demonologist to death. That was what I believed, yes, but what actually happened might have been far worse.

I sat my boys down a few days after the incident and told them there was no flaky man. I told them they had to stop talking to him, stop imagining him, and that they would only be safe with me. Ethan kept asking why the flaky man had to go away. I was about to try and explain it to him, but Xander answered for me.

“He’s not real. We’re not little kids anymore. Imaginary friends are stupid anyway.”

I decided we would move away again. If this whole town was haunted then we’d live in the city, or we’d move to New York, or we’d ditch the country entirely and go live in France. I didn’t care how much money I’d have to spend to get away from this nightmare. For a few months, the strange occurrences died down and things seemed to be returning to normal. Xander’s night terrors stopped and Ethan was no longer sleepwalking or imagining the flaky man. As for myself, I wasn’t at ease, but I was beginning to feel a little more in control.

As much as I hoped I was getting lucky, I could never outrun my past. It caught up to me all too suddenly, and I was powerless to stop it.

It was nine years to the date of my husband’s death. I had just finished my largest project yet, a commission piece so extensive that it almost took up an entire room. I was working from home that day when I got the call from the school that Ethan was sick and needed to be picked up. My friend was a teacher there, so she very generously offered to drive him home. I headed down and waited outside for them to arrive, watching the strip of road outside the house for any sign of their car.

I saw them approaching after about ten minutes. I waved, and saw my friend wave back. Ethan weakly copied her movement. He must’ve had a bad stomach bug.

And then the car exploded.

I was thrown backwards by the shockwave, so massive that it affected me from hundreds of yards away. I had no time to process it, and was on my back within moments. My whole body ached, but the only thing on my mind was my son. I forced myself upwards and saw only the smoking, burning wreck of the car, debris flung in every direction, nothing but metal and blood on the road. I screamed so loud I felt something in my throat tear.

Car battery ignited. Happens sometimes. Just one of those things. Just one of those horrible tragedies. And the poor mother; she really must have lost it.

My son was gone. He had been killed. It was mercy, almost, that his death had been instant. My friend lasted a few minutes longer, long enough to croak her last breaths out as she was loaded onto the stretcher and into the ambulance. But my son was dead. All that potential, all that life, he’d never get to live. He was nine years old, and he was dead before he ever left the state. Before he ever truly got the chance to grow up.

I was beyond devastated. Xander cried for days on end, refusing to eat, refusing to leave his room. I tried consoling him but I was a mess, and I had no way of truly supporting him. I began to rely on my friends again, asking them to babysit him whilst I sat in silent solitude in my own personal hell. I could swear sometimes I heard my boy’s last scream before he was taken.

Sleep was a dreamless, welcome respite. The nightmares hadn’t started yet, but they would. Once it finally hit me that Ethan was dead. I prayed he was in Heaven. I saw no reason why he wouldn’t have been, despite the horrors in our house. He was such a good boy.

Kept up one night by the memory, I turned onto my side and wondered if I was still asleep. Maybe this could all end once I finally woke up. I heard footsteps, and the bed creaking slightly, and was thankful Xander had come to me. But I didn’t hear his quiet sniffles, nor did I feel the warmth of his body. Instead, something much heavier laid beside me, a slight crackling noise accompanying its movements. I felt a hand curl around my waist, burning hot to the touch. I didn’t dare look behind me.

The next thing I heard was very quiet breathing. It was so quiet that if my house was anything but silent, I wouldn’t have heard it. The sound was harsh and jagged, as if the vocal cords had been irreparably damaged. I tried to hold in my sobs, my entire body shivering in fear. I knew who it was. Of course it was him. I had ignored the signs up until that moment, ignored the fact that Ethan died on the same day his father did nine years ago and ignored the fact they died in the exact same way.

I felt the flaky man’s spindly fingers caress the back of my neck, and gently play with my hair. I wasn’t sure what he might do, but what happened was not at all what I expected. In a low, raspy voice filled with rotten flesh and dirt and bugs, he spoke.

‘I’ll kill the other one if you try to get rid of me again.’

Hell is real.

I can’t escape the monster anymore. I thought I was safe when he went up in flames, but I know now that evil doesn’t work that way. You can’t erase it. You can’t get rid of it. It’s the strongest disease on Earth and it will not stop, no matter who or what tries to destroy it. Evil is not troubled by death. Evil doesn’t fear God. Evil has existed since the dawn of time, and it will endure until the end of eternity, and it will find you if you cross it. Whatever is haunting me isn’t bound by tainted ground, or an unholy object – it’s rooted deep inside the one it chose to torment.

I don’t know how long Xander will survive… or if he even will survive. If I try to get rid of this demon, it will come for my only remaining son, and I can’t put him through that. Not after his brother was murdered. I will do whatever it takes to protect him, no matter the cost. Neither of us deserve this, but a part of me believes that maybe he might be spared if I do what the flaky man says.

I’m trapped in a spiralling, descending world of nightmares. Every day is poisoned by his presence, the figure always waiting and watching. I see him all the time now, even during the day. He looks worse than ever. Simply glancing at him is enough to make me nauseous. Xander is trying his best to cope but I can tell how much he misses his brother. It’s a horrible fate to befall a child. This will never leave him, just like it’ll never leave me. And that’s the worst part: not even death will make me free. When I finally take my last breath, the only thing I’ll see is his face bearing down on me, waiting to take me into his world.

It’s kind of funny, in a way. I always wondered what Hell might look like. And now, I’m there, and I’ll be there forever. Just me and the flaky man. Just me and my husband.

Just me and the monster that chose me.

Credit: Samethyst

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